Question of Strength 63

Your Questions, Expert Answers

Coach T answers your questions about Zerchers and direct ab training.

The Advantages of Zerchers

Q: Why do you like zercher squats? They’re not great for leg development because you’re limited by your arm strength, and they’re uncomfortable.

First, I rarely use Zercher squats as a client’s primary squatting movement. There are exceptions, though. For instance, one of my clients, Anthony Campbell, is stronger on the Zercher squat than the front squat, and it feels more comfortable for him. This is actually quite common.

In fact, most of the people I use Zerchers with end up lifting anywhere between 90 and 110% of what they can front squat. As evidence, below is Anthony doing a single with 455 pounds, whereas his best front squat is 425.

I also use it with football players during more specific phases, like “functional/strongman” day where we normally do log cleans, clean and presses, Zercher squats, and loaded carries.

I actually don’t like the term “sport specific,” but I find that the Zercher transfers well to some key actions of football, like tackling and blocking. I also find it useful for grapplers.

As for non-athletes, the Zercher is a great tool to teach proper squatting mechanics, a view shared by Louie Simmons. Here are a few additional plusses:

  1. It’s the easiest squat variation to reach full depth while staying upright, making it awesome for individuals with long legs.
  2. It’s the squat variation with the highest amount of core activation, allowing you to create a high amount of intra-abdominal pressure that can transfer well to other forms of squatting.
  3. It’s also effective at strengthening the thoracic region of your torso, which can solve the issue of rounding when front squatting.

Now as far as the Zercher not being effective at building legs because you’re limited by your arm strength, that’s a statement only made by someone who has never given Zerchers a serious shot.

Just to drive the point home, here’s Anthony doing a Zercher hold (one of my favorite core exercise) with 700 pounds. Now, Tony has very strong arms, but not to the point of being able to hold 700 pounds with his biceps! Clearly, arm strength isn’t ordinarily a limiting factor.

I will agree, though, that it’s not super comfortable to do, but using a thick bar or wearing a long-sleeved hoodie makes it completely manageable.

Ab Training and Sports Performance

Q: Do you need to train abs with stuff like crunches? I hear they’re not necessary if you already do the big lifts. Don’t crunches hurt performance?

Plenty of credible strength coaches say that if you do big basic lifts like squats, front squats, deadlifts, loaded carries, and the like, your core gets enough work and adding direct abdominal work is a waste of time.

You even have rehab specialists saying that doing isolated ab work in the form of trunk or hip flexion (various crunches and leg raises) is actually anti-functional and could lead to a worsening of performance and a higher risk of back pain. They maintain that all you should do is stuff like planks, side planks, and anti-rotation exercises like the Pallof press.

While the first argument could have value, I’m not sure about the second one. After all, crunches of various types are done quite a lot by Chinese weightlifters, by Westside barbell guys, and by mixed martial artists and other fighters. Heck, Cuban weightlifters, back when they were a powerhouse in the sport, did sets of crunches before doing squats!

Sprinters of all levels are also big on various crunches and leg raise variations. If it hurts performance, we certainly can’t see it!

Anyway, let’s dig a bit into that life-or-death topic, shall we?

First Argument: You don’t need ab work if you do the big lifts.

I get where this is coming from. It is true that if you train the squat, deadlift, Olympic lifts, and loaded carries, your “core” is stimulated because your abs (including obliques and rectus abdominis), lower back, and other muscles like the quadratus lumborum are key players in those lifts.

But I don’t really understand this point of view. The very fact that those muscles are key in the lift and could be a weak link is actually a reason to incorporate direct work for them, at least if they’re a weakness.

Avoiding direct work for abs would be like saying a powerlifter doesn’t need to train his triceps because he benches, or that hitting the hamstrings isn’t necessary because they get hit when you squat and deadlift.

I readily admit that some strong lifters don’t perform isolated work for triceps, hamstrings, delts, or abs. But not everybody has the perfect body type and mind-muscle connection to make all of his muscles develop pretty much equally simply by doing the big basic lifts.

If a muscle is a weak link in your chain, it will not fix itself by simply being exposed to the big basics. You will need direct work for that muscle group.

Second Argument: When you lift or play sports, the abs aren’t asked to flex the torso, so you shouldn’t train them that way.

The argument by the “functionalists” is that when you squat, deadlift, clean, snatch, push press, run, or jump, your abs are not asked to flex the trunk (like in a crunch) – only to fixate or stabilize it.

Using trunk flexion exercises is a waste of time and could even be detrimental because being too strong in trunk flexion could actually impair trunk extension, which is required in many lifts and athletic movements. (That’s their argument, not mine.) They say if you train abs, it should only be anti-flexion and anti-rotation work.

That argument is intellectually seductive. But it’s not as simple as that. While I do agree that anti-flexion and anti-rotation work is more specific to most sport actions, they’re not effective at building muscle.

If a person is weak in the various ab exercises, it likely means two things:

  1. The abs are underdeveloped, lacking the size and strength to do their job optimally.
  2. The mind-muscle connection with the abs is poor. You don’t feel them properly and it will be hard to properly engage them during stabilization work.

The trouble is, anti-rotation and anti-flexion (Pallof presses, planks, etc.) work is mostly isometric in nature and isn’t very effective at stimulating growth. If you suck at feeling your abs being engaged in movements like the squat, deadlift, or farmer’s walks, chances are that you won’t feel them any better on the “anti” exercises. That calls for flexion work.

The Role of Flexion Work

First, there’s no doubt that for aesthetic goals, flexion and even lateral flexion and rotational abdominal work is superior to the static anti-flexion/anti-rotation work.

If you want to have a nasty six pack, making those abs thicker is very important. The thicker your abs are, the more separated they’ll become.

And when it comes to performance, it’s true that flexion work isn’t specific to most athletic actions. However, flexion work is actually a very effective way to increase the strength potential of the abs. It’s also the best way to become more efficient at contracting the abs and improving your mind-muscle connection with them.

Coaches who speak against the value of direct dynamic ab work normally have great abdominal control to start with. Either it’s something that came naturally to them or their training/sporting background gave them that skill. As such, they don’t understand that most people aren’t in the same boat.

So, here are my recommendations:

  • Do crunches and other direct ab exercises to build a foundation. That will then make it easier and more effective to do anti-flexion and anti-rotation work.
  • Do crunches and other direct ab exercises to be able to feel and contract your abs better, which will make it easier to tense them during the big basic lifts.

Once you have the abdominal development and the mind-muscle connection to be able to engage them properly and produce a high level of force during static exercises, by all means drop crunches if you want.

The fact is, flexion work a useful tool for many, and dismissing it universally is a mistake.